The Murr family cottage on the shore of Lake St. Croix, in western Wisconsin.(Photo: Family photo)

WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court struggled on Monday over a property rights dispute that could make it tougher for state and local governments to limit development in coastal areas.

The case involves a family’s effort to sell part of its riverfront land in Wisconsin. The family planned to use the money from a vacant lot they own to pay for improvements on a cabin that sits on the parcel next door.

But St. Croix County officials nixed the sale for violating local conservation rules and treated the lots as a single property that can’t be split up. The family says that’s unfair and claims the government should pay what the vacant parcel is worth — up to $400,000. The government argues that when viewed as a whole, the land remains quite valuable and the family is owed nothing.